National Enquirer More Believable than New York Times

Jack Shafer argues that the National Enquirer is more reliable that the mainstream press, even though it’s the latter is more trusted:

Almost three decades ago, the National Enquirer abandoned the traditional supermarket tabloid formula of UFOs, bizarre sex, seances, gross-outs, Loch Ness-ish monsters, cooked-up stories, and celebrity gossip for a new formula mostly devoted to celebrities. Striving for the kind of journalistic accuracy that repels libel suits, the tabloid paid many of its sources and scrupulously reported and fact-checked its pieces about Cher, Liz and Dick, Jackie O., Liza, Henry Kissinger, Burt and Loni, and the original Charlie’s Angels.

By the time of the 1994 Nicole Brown Simpson-Ron Goldman murders, the Enquirer truth machine had become so good that reporter David Margolick was toasting it in the New York Times for scooping the competition — and applauding it for spiking many of the false stories that appeared in mainstream media.

One would think that the Enquirer‘s discovery of accurate journalism would have elevated its reputation. Instead, the tabloid is regarded slightly worse today than it was in 1985, according to a new survey conducted by the Pew Research Center. Respondents were asked to rate news organizations on a 1-to-4 scale, with 1 representing “I believe all or most” of what the news organization says and 4 representing “I believe almost nothing.” Only 4 percent of the polled group believed all or most of what the Enquirer says, and a whopping 61 percent believed nothing. Back in June 1985, a similar Pew survey found that 4 percent believed all or most of what the Enquirer said, and 54 percent believed almost nothing.

Compare the Enquirer‘s survey numbers to those of USA Today’s: Fifteen percent believe all or most of what USA Today says, and only 8 percent believe nothing it says (55 percent chose believability values 2 or 3; 21 percent ventured no judgment of the paper). USA Today’s overall score is similar to the ones recorded for other mainstream media, such as NBC News, the New York Times, and CNN, to name a few.

The Enquirer‘s relatively bad rep presents a paradox that is not easily resolved. The Enquirer may overplay stories, as it does in the most recent issue (June 14, 2004) by describing Jessica “Washingtonienne” Cutler in a headline as the center of a “Bush Sex Scandal” when all she’s confessed to is having slept with an unnamed Bush appointee for money. But the particulars of the Enquirer story appear to be true. The Enquirer may focus excessively on the exploits of show-biz figures such as Billy Bob Thornton, Lindsay Lohan’s father, and Larry Hagman, but if past issues are a guide, the tabloid isn’t making this stuff up. And say whatever ugly things you will about the modern National Enquirer, it hasn’t staged the filming of an exploding pickup truck like NBC News; it hasn’t been taken by a serial liar, as was the New York Times; and it’s avoided running preposterous stories about the U.S. government using nerve gas in Vietnam, as CNN did. Had Jack Kelley attempted to place his fictions in the Enquirer instead of USA Today, I’m sure the editors would have found him out.

***

The respondents who judged People (and the National Enquirer) so poorly are dead wrong, and the pollsters at Pew (for whom I have much respect) should be taken to the woodshed for having designed a rickety survey. When you gather opinions from people on subjects of which they know little or nothing, you’re only collecting interesting garbage.

Interesting. Much of this, one presumes, is simple cognitive dissonance. The initial expectation–based on legitimate evidence–was that the tabloids were trash and the Big Media were credible. Evidence to the contrary is chalked up as exceptional.

UPDATE: The John Edwards – Rielle Hunter saga is yet more proof.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. McGehee says:

    The National Enquirer? You mean this National Enquirer?

    Of course it’s more trustworthy than the New York Times — so is Weekly World News, because WWN makes no bones about making it all up.

  2. bryan says:

    I doubt you could get that many people to admit they read the National Enquirer, much less say how much of it they believed.

    If you were to do an actual content survey, where people read an issue of the NE and then rated the believability of the items in the paper, I think the numbers would be very different.

  3. No link?

  4. inside the buttway says:

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  5. Boyd says:

    At the risk of feeding a troll, I have to state that James’s site takes about five seconds to load on my computer (not optimal, to be sure, but not totally unreasonable, either).

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  6. McGehee says:

    I didn’t know there were still Internet-by-carrier-pigeon connections available. Maybe at the Unabomber’s old cabin…

  7. bryan says:

    Actually, I still have dial-up at home, and James’ site takes an incredibly long time to load. I think it has to do with the blogrolls, and blog ads, but I could be wrong.

    The two sites that load quickest for me on dialup – dean’s world and a small victory – hang up on the blogrolls and blogads. Perhaps, James, you could move some of the code around to where it loads the center column first, it might make a differene.